Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Pyr, March 2010
Trade Paperback, 508 pp
ISBN: 978-1-61614-192-9


Part Epic Fantasy, part Military Fantasy, and part espionage thriller, Empire in Black and Gold is both Adrian Tchaikovsky’s debut novel and the first novel of his Shadows of the Apt series. The story focuses on several characters, but the character who really drives the narrative and plot is Stenwold Maker of the Collegium, a spymaster and politician.  His major political moves consist of warning his people of the encroaching Wasp Empire, the titular Empire in Black and Gold. The Lowlands, where the Collegium stands, is unprepared for the encroaching Empire, and are hesitant to heed the warnings of Stenwold, much like the people of Krypton did not believe Jor-El when he told of that world’s doom. As a result, Stenwold sends a group of his young followers, including his ward Tynisia and his niece Cheerwell across the land to try and gather intelligence to support his claims.

This is somewhat familiar, an invading army, a young group of heroes part of an underground movement, reminded me a bit of the beginning of Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and the League of the Scroll featured in those books.  What Tchaikovsky does to really set his novel and creation apart is the inventive world building.  Nations are associated with an insect totem (or kinden), such as the Wasp-kinden of the title who can take to the air, or the Mantis-kinden known as great warriors, or Beetle-kinden who are considered tinkers of technology.  Each of these kinden have a specific knowledge and technical skill, or aptitude, thus the Shadows of the Apt umbrella under which this series falls.

This world; however, isn’t a flat-out horse-and-carriage fantasy world.  Oh no, no. In many ways, there’s a steampunk feel to the world, with machinery and factories giving a feel almost reminiscent of the World Wars of the first half of the Twentieth Century. This is contrasted nicely with the magic hinted at throughout the novel.  What makes it more impressive is how Tchaikovsky weaves the technology and magic together.

While the world is constructed very well, the plot seemed a bit uneven throughout the novel.  The sense of cohesiveness and flow between the storylines of the group Stenwold dispatches to Helleron wasn’t quite as strong.  Parts of each of their stories, particularly the development of Tynisia, did however work nicely on the whole.  Another stumbling block I had were these names.  Stenwold sounded too much like the old Science Fiction series by Allen Cole and I kept thinking of the male character of Salma as a female, likely because of the beautiful and famous actress Salma Hayek.  These may seem trivial matters, but for me, made it difficult to moving along with Tchaikovsky’s narrative flow.

I keep beating this drum with Pyr, but the publisher/imprint really knows how to make great looking books on a single book basis and great series design with these quick-release trilogies and series.  The art by Jon Sullivan captures the chaotic feel of the novel very well.

While I did have some issues with the novel and didn’t quite remain consistently connected to the narrative throughout, it is clear to me that Tchaikovsky has something interesting going on with this series.  This novel could be considered a prelude to something greater, a larger movement to come.  What’s more, for all the richness of the world building on display in Empire in Black and Gold, I don’t get a sense that Tchaikovsky has revealed all the cards in his hand.   This could be a series to watch here in the States as folks who’ve read the UK editions have been watching with anticipation for a couple of years.

© 2010 Rob H. Bedford

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